Thirty-five years ago, John Carlos became one half of perhaps the most famous (or infamous) moment in Olympic history. After winning the bronze medal in the 200 meter dash, he and gold medallist Tommy Smith, raised their black glove clad fists in a display of “black power.” It was a moment that defined the revolutionary spirit and defiance of a generation. Now as the 35th anniversary of that moment passes with nary a word, John Carlos talks about about those turbulent times.
DZ: Many call that period of the 1960s, the revolt of the black athlete. Why?
JC: I think Sports Illustrated started that phrase. I don’t think of it as the revolt of the black athlete at all. It was the revolt of the black men. Athletics was my occupation. I didn’t do what I did as an athlete. I raised my voice in protest as a man. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the era of Dr. King, of Paul Robeson, of baseball players like Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella who would come into my dad’s shop on 142nd street and Lennox in Harlem. I could see how they were treated as black athletes. I would ask myself, why is this happening? Racism meant that none of us could truly have our day in the sun. Without education, housing, and employment, we would lose what I call “family hood.” If you can’t give your wife or son or daughter what they need to live, after a while you try to escape who you are. That’s why people turn to drugs and why our communities have been destroyed. And that’s why there was a revolt.
DZ: When you woke up that morning in 1968, did you know you were going to make your historic gesture on the medal stand or was it spontaneous?
JC: It was in my head the whole year. We first tried to have a boycott [to get all Black athletes to boycott the Olympics] but not everyone was down with that plan. A lot of the athletes thought that winning medals would supercede or protect them from racism. But even if you won the medal it aint going to save your momma. It aint going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life? I’m not saying they didn’t have the right to follow their dreams, but to me the medal was nothing but the carrot on a stick
DZ: At the last track meet before the Olympics, we left it that every man would do his own thing. You had to choose which side of the fence you were on. You had to say, “I’m for racism or I’m against racism.”
JC: We stated we were going to do something. But Tommie and I didn’t know what we were going to do until we got into the tunnel [on the way to the race].. We had gloves, black shirts and beads. And we decided in that tunnel that if we were going to go out on that stand, we were going to go out barefooted.
DZ: Why Barefooted?
JC: We wanted the world to know that in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Central Los Angeles, Chicago, that people were still walking back and forth in poverty without even the necessary clothes to live. We have kids that don’t have shoes even today. Its not like the powers that be can’t do it provide these things. They can send a space ship to the moon, or send a probe to Mars, yet they can’t give shoes? They can’t give health care? I’m just not naive enough to accept that.
DZ: Why did you wear beads on the medal stand?
JC: The beads were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no one said a prayer for, that were hung tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage. All that was in my mind. We didn’t come up there with any bombs. We were trying to wake the country up and wake the world up too.
DZ: How did your life change when you took that step onto the podium?
JC: My life changed prior to the podium, I used to break into freight trains by Yankee Stadium when I was young. Then I changed when I realized I was a force in track and field. I realized I didn’t have to break into freight trains. I wanted to wake up the people who work and run the trains so they can seize what they deserve. It’s like these supermarkets in Southern California that are on strike. They always have extra milk and they throw it in the river or dump it the garbage even though there are people without milk. They say we can’t give it to you so we would rather throw it away. Something is very wrong. Realizing that changed me long before 1968.
DZ: What kind of harassment did you face back home?
JC: I was with Dr. King ten days before he died. He told me he was sent a letter that said there was a bullet with his name on it. I remember looking in his eyes to see if there was any fear, and there was none. He didn’t have any fear. He had love and that in itself changed my life in terms how I would go into battle. I would never have fear for my opponent, but love for the people I was fighting for. That’s why if you look at the picture [of the raised fist] Tommy has his jacket zipped up, and [silver medallist] Peter Norman has his jacket zipped up, but mine was open. I was representing shift workers, blue-collar people, and the underdogs. That’s why my shirt was open. Those are the people whose contributions to society are so important but don’t get recognized.
DZ: What kind of support did you receive when you came home?
JC: There was pride but only from the less fortunate. What could they do but show their pride? But we had black businessmen, we had black political caucuses, and they never embraced Tommie Smith or John Carlos. When my wife took her life; 1977 and they never said, let me help.
DZ: What role did you being outcast have on your wife taking her own life?
JC: It played a huge role. We were under tremendous economic stress. I took any job I could find. I wasn’t too proud. Menial jobs, security jobs, gardener, caretaker, whatever I could do to try to make ends meet. We had four children, and some nights I would have to chop up our furniture and put it in the fireplace to stay warm. I was the bad guy, the two headed dragon-spitting fire. It meant we were alone.
DZ: Many people say athletes should just play and not be heard. What do you say to that?
JC: Those people should put all their millions of dollars together and make a factory that builds athlete-robots. Athletes are human beings. We have feelings too. How can you ask someone to live in the world, to exist in the world, and not have something to say about injustice?
DZ: What message do you have to the new generation of athletes hitting the world stage?
JC: First of all athletes black/red/brown/yellow and white need to do some research on their history; their own personal family They need to find out how many people in their family were maimed in a war. They need to find out how hard their ancestors had to work. They need to uncloud their minds with the materialism and the money and study their history. And then they need to speak up. You got to step up to society when it’s letting all its people down.
DZ: As you look at the world today, do you think athletes and all people still need to speak out and take a stand?
JC: Yes, because so much is the same as it was in 1968 especially in terms of race relations. I think things are just more cosmetically disguised. Look at Mississippi, or Alabama. It hasn’t changed from back in the day. Look at the city of Memphis and you still see blight up and down. You can still see the despair and the dope. Look at the police rolling up and putting 29 bullets in a person in the hallway, or sticking a plunger up a man’s rectum, or Texas where they dragged that man by the neck from the bumper of a truck. How is that not just the same as a lynching?
DZ: Do you feel like you are being embraced now after all these years?
JC: I don’t feel embraced, I feel like a survivor, like I survived cancer. It’s like if you are sick and no one wants to be around you, and when you’re well everyone who thought you would go down for good doesn’t even want to make eye contact. It was almost like we were on a deserted island. That’s where Tommy Smith and John Carlos were. But we survived.
You can learn more about John Carlos at his website, www.johncarlos.com
DAVE ZIRIN is the editor of the Prince George’s Post, the only African-American owned newspaper in Prince George’s County, Maryland. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org